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AlterNet's "New Media Heroes" Usher in Post-Dot-com Era

To honor public-interest websites stepping up to fill the void left by dying dot-coms, AlterNet readers chose their media heroes.
 
 
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The dotcom boom has gone bust. Billboards across Silicon Valley advertise Web sites that help laid off dotcommers find new jobs. San Francisco's South Park neighborhood, the "multi-media gulch" that served as one epicenter of the Internet boom, is now festooned with For Rent signs. New York Newsday's lead story on February 19 -- "On Shaky Ground: The Fall of the Dot Coms" -- is filled with quotes from unemployed Silicon Alley executives who found themselves "swept up in an exhausting race to become first, fastest, or best..."

What happened is no great mystery. Hype had triumphed over reason for long enough, and finally reason came back to kick hype in the ass. Today, successful business models for commercial Web sites -- unless they involve three Xs in a row -- are mighty rare.

And yet, countless millions of Americans constantly use the 'Net. They go online to e-mail each other, to trade information, to flirt, to be entertained, to create communities, to learn -- they just don't buy enough stuff for most dotcoms to make a profit. In other words, the Internet as we know it is more useful for communicating and bringing people together than for commerce.

Often, that communication is done in the public interest, or in the interest of making trouble for the dominant corporate establishment. From the hyper-active listservs used to plan the Seattle protests to five person online support groups, public interest Web ventures are growing in number, influence and scope.

In recognition of this growing body of civic minded 'Net players, the news and syndication service AlterNet.org has announced the winners of its first annual "New Media Heroes Awards."

The 24 nominees for the award were selected by AlterNet readers and staff. The list was then presented to the public, and thousands cast their votes for up to five of the 24 nominees. The final tallies gave the popular vote award to these winners:

1. Chip Giller, Editor of Grist, the online magazine and newsletter of environmental news, features, columns and activism (www.gristmagazine.com)

2. Leif Utne, Editor of Utne Web Watch, the Utne Reader's digest of alternative sites and articles from elsewhere on the web (www.utne.com/webwatch)

3. Josh Karliner, Director of CorpWatch, the online activism center and magazine of the Transnational Resource and Action Center (www.corpwatch.org)

4. John Moyers, Creator and Editor of Tompaine.com, the online magazine known for its controversial New York Times Op. Ed. page ads (www.tompaine.com)

5. (virtual tie) Art McGee, Internet Communications director of the Black Radical Congress, which hosts the lively BRCNet listserv (www.blackradicalcongress.org)

5. (virtual tie) Josh Knauer, founder of EnviroLink Network, a free web host for over 500 non-profits, and CEO of Green Marketplace, a socially responsible e-store (www.greenmarketplace.com)

"The New Media Heroes contest is not so much about ranking the best public interest sites on the Web," says Don Hazen, AlterNet's executive editor. "It's more an opportunity to look around in this climate of dotcom failure and see what works online. These Heroes reach more people with information that makes a difference in their lives faster than they ever could before the technology of the Internet. The creative, effective use of that technology -- that's what the New Media Heroes Awards are honoring."

Zed of Grist
Zed, Grist Magazine's
cartoon mascot

Top vote-getter Chip Giller of Grist Magazine certainly exploits the power of large audience and low overhead that the Internet affords. With a popular daily newsletter, Grist feeds its readers the latest and most important environmental news and tells them, in Giller's words, "what they can do about the woeful state our planet is in."

Grist is a project of the Earthday Network and was started in April 1999, when Giller was put in charge of the Earthday 2000 Web site. The Earthday site needed a newsletter about the destruction of our environment, but instead of swamping readers with a barrage of depressing information, Giller took a different tack.

"The problems the planet faces are so vast that too often people get overwhelmed by them and tune out," says Giller. "I wanted to create a publication that would engage a large audience and motivate them to take action. The way to do this was to have an attitude and to use humor in unexpected ways."

Grist's slogan -- "gloom and doom with a sense of humor" -- has apparently caught on. Tens of thousands of subscribers get the newsletter every day.

Utne Web Watch

The second highest vote-getter, Leif Utne, has a similarly popular newletter, the Utne Web Watch. Like Giller, Utne and his team sift through news and information on other sites and compile them into an easy-to-read digest. But unlike Grist's specific focus on the environment, the Utne Web Watch peruses literally thousands of sites to track political, cultural, health, spirituality, literary, music, technology and even travel trends -- just about any subject that can be found on the "alternative" Web.

One of Utne's big fans is Monte Paulsen, consultant to a couple of dying or dead dotcoms, crack investigative reporter and a keen observer of media and politics who thinks he has some things figured out about the new online environment.

"Leif Utne does what the print version of the Utne Reader has always done: survey the alternative press and bring the best to my attention," says Paulsen. "But now it's three-a-day, three times a week -- a bimonthly can't possibly deliver such quantity and timliness."

Part of the Web Watch's clout comes from its connection to Cafe Utne (cafe.utne.com), the Webby award-winning discussion community with over 50,000 registered users. The Cafe's 70-plus public discussion areas run the gamut from politics to gardening to sex to current events. With print magazines like Utne Reader struggling economically as costs soar, the Utne empire's future just might lie with the Web Watch and Cafe, which get approximately 200,000 unique visitors and about 2.1 million page views per month.

CorpWatch

New Media Hero number three, Josh Karliner, has a much more focused agenda than providing information. As director of CorpWatch, the online arm of the Transnational Resource and Action Center, Karliner sees his site as the connection between the many branches of a new movement.

"There's a growing international challenge to corporate-led globalization," says Karliner. "We're using the Internet to build that movement -- to help tie its disparate strands together with information, analysis, resources and action tools."

Although he considers himself a "new media misfit" -- "I prefer to surf waves over Web sites," he confesses -- Karliner is a writer, journalist and activist who's been working for international human rights and environmental justice for almost 20 years.

"So when the Web came along, it seemed the perfect tool to disseminate information while building local to global links on issues related to corporate globalization," he explains. That was 1996, and "things just took off from there."

TomPaine

In contrast, the number four New Media Hero, John Moyers of TomPaine.com, has only been operating his site since late 1999. After four years as a print and radio journalist in Vermont, a year in Public Affairs for the Sierra Club and six years as director of the Florence and John Schumann Foundation, a private grant making foundation based in New Jersey, Moyers concluded that publicity was crucial to the success of nonprofits. So TomPaine.com was set up to generate such publicity, by placing ads for civic-minded groups in the New York Times' op ed section. These ads refer readers to features, reports and opinion pieces on the TomPaine.com site that expound upon the public interest groups' views.

"TomPaine.com is an outgrowth of the lessons I've learned about philanthropy," Moyers said. "Rather than just giving non-profits money to do public relations as foundations typically do, I wanted us to create our own venue for public interest news."

TomPaine.com now receives 150,000 visitors per month. "We have a very serious readership," Moyers says. "Perhaps the most commonly expressed sentiment is 'I can't find this information anywhere else on the web.' But because we point fingers and name names at public and corporate officials, we get a lot of angry letters too, which I think is great."

Art Mcgee
The BRC's Art McGee

In a virtual tie for fifth place were two New Media Heroes who have been online since the earliest days of the Internet: Art McGee of the Black Radical Congress and Josh Knauer of EnviroLink and Greenmarketplace.com.

McGee is the glue for the free news and information service run by the Black Radical Congress and the first person ever to compile a directory of online resources by, for, and about Black people. "I've been working with computers and new media for over 20 years," McGee says, "dealing with everything from Supercomputers to Palm Pilots."

Green Marketplace

Knauer, also a Web veteran, founded the EnviroLink Network in 1991 to provide a central place for the public to learn more about the environmental movement. EnviroLink became a huge success -- Time magazine called it "the place to start on the Internet for all things ecological" -- and Knauer decided to extend his talent to GreenMarketplace.com, which is now a successful, planet-conscious e-commerce site.

"Green Marketplace has organically and artistically grown out of control," says Knauer. "Our customers come back because they trust us; we only sell products we've thoroughly researched and we believe in, and they know that."

From the original 24 nominees, the AlterNet staff also selected a short list of those sites and individuals that may not have been among the top vote getters, but who still deserve special recognition for their new media efforts:

Farai

Farai Chideya, founder of PopandPolitics.com, is an African-American journalist, writer and new media pioneer who has been running her site for over five years. Aimed at engaging a younger, more urban audience, PopandPolitics tackles topics from hardcore political analysis to hip hop and electronic music.

Becky Bond
Radio for Change,
one of Becky Bond's projects

Becky Bond, the creative force behind Working Assets' new media properties (workingforchange.com, radioforchange.com, actforchange.com) and the host of Web radio program Fast Forward, is probably the most anomalous of the New Media Heroes. Bond is by far the most high-tech of the Heroes -- her sites use a wide array of streaming technologies and she is constantly pushing the boundaries of how she can use the Web to, in her words, "radicalize the hipoisie."

IMC logo

Instead of an individual hero, the collective effort of the Independent Media Centers (indymedia.org) deserve special honor for their powerful and ambitious coverage of anti-corporate protest events worldwide. The IMCs are especially noteworthy because they rely very little on leadership and much more on the tireless volunteers who staff them. As one architect of the IMCs noted, "The success and power of the IMC project is because it has been a grassroots, non-heirarchical, and extremely collaborative project... [So] although I am honored to be nominated, I would like to withdraw my name and request that the IMCs be substituted as the nominee."

TBWT

Don Rojas, CEO of The Black Word Today (tbwt.com), has been bringing high-quality progressive news to the African-American community for many years. TBWT has survived as a business without any significant backing from the venture capital community, due in large part to Rojas' perserverance and political savvy. TBWT has consistently impressive traffic numbers, often outperforming more mainstream African-American portals that receive greater publicity.

Sam Smith
Sam Smith;
photo by Kay Churnish

Sam Smith is the one-man operation behind the Progressive Review newsletter and Web site (prorev.com). With the slogan "Inside the Beltway, outside the loop, but ahead of the curve," the Review keeps thousands of readers up-to-date on Washington politics from a progressive viewpoint. One nominator called him "a hero of ours. We consider him a national treasure." Another said: "Sam is almost like a latter-day, progressive I.F. Stone. He's a one-man band. No staff. No money. He just does it on his own dime, for the love of it."

What all these New Media Heroes have in common -- with the exception of Becky Bond and the IMCs --is that they essentially use the very basics of Web technology. Instead of flashy sites filled with eye-popping graphics and high bandwidth interactive pages, they use simple pages of text, links and e-mail newsletters. According to dotcom consultant Paulsen, this is something to be proud of.

"Most Internet thinking has been all about high bandwidth sites and applications -- trying to squeeze more through the pipe," says Paulsen. "Even regardless of the fact that the vast majority of users are still jacking in with less than 56k modems, the philosophy is still wrong. This tech-twisted thinking ignores the superceding reality: time is the ultimate bandwidth. Regardless of how fast the pipe, we are all short on time."

In other words, if there is a message the New Media Heroes might send to their comrades, it's to go back to the Internet basics.

"The New Media Hero Award winners, and many of the nominees, deserve praise for their low-tech delivery of good thinking," Paulsen says. "Their products are available to people with old computers, and people living in remote areas where big bandwidth is not available. They give people what we really want -- help getting the information we need quickly, no muss no fuss."

Have an opinion about the New Media Heroes? Voice it on the special "New Media Heroes" thread of the AlterNet discussion boards.